Police Abuse of
Prostitutes in San Francisco
by Jeremy Hay
(Jeremy Hay was a reporter for the now defunct Tenderloin Times. The names of the prostitutes quoted in this article have been changed except for where otherwise indicated. The article was originally published in Gauntlet Magazine, Issue #7, Volume 1, 1994)
Mimi is a 19 year old prostitute who works on the streets of the Tenderloin, one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco. She reminds me of the cheerleaders I knew in High School-saucy, bright eyes, her self-confidence tinged with an aggressive reluctance to be hurt Recently, she described for me a common exchange between her and the men in the cars.
"Oh, they ask me if I shave my pussy and stuff. How big my nipples are, do they get hard, how deep I can take it."
And there it is, the answer to something I'd long wondered--what exactly is it that police officers so jovially discuss with these girls while they run their names through the computer.
It is a common sight, a cop pulls up and crooks his finger towards one or more prostitutes on the sidewalk, keeps them there for five, ten, fifteen minutes-and it represents only the most ordinary frontline of the abuses that street prostitutes in particular are subjected to by the boys in blue.
The question of police abuse is one that obviously resounds differently in different communities. What would rank as cause for a lawsuit in the eyes of a "legitimate" woman, barely qualifies as harassment in the eyes of many 'illegitimate working girls. It is telling that Mimi offered the above anecdote only after several interviews had already plumbed the more notable incidents of abuse in her memory.
What is striking about many street prostitutes is that they often regard even the more severe abuses they encounter at the hands of the police as little more than hazards of the job. This is not because these women lack a sense of justice. It is because, in the matter-of-fact words of Donna Argenot, a black woman in her late twenties with a gentle, thoughtful manner, "We can't do anything about it anyway. They know who we are and where to come get us."
After the first reaction of, "I don't have time," the next response of most every prostitute whom I approached for this article was, "Oh sure, we talk to you and then the cops know exactly who we are and where to find us.' A response which spotlights the ever-present fear street prostitutes have, or simply the hard recognition, that their lives and safety are in the hands of people who could easily hurt them and do so under the cover of the law..
One has to ask, who has the most to lose by talking? A decent cop like Jerry Golz, a 24 year veteran of the force currently serving on the vice squad, who says,, "In my experience, I've never seen or heard of it (police abuse) happening," or a street prostitute like Mimi or Donna, or Patricia Randall, who tells of being beaten up by the police while pregnant and who still works on the exposed street?
Exactly how pervasive and how severe is the abuse of street prostitutes by San Francisco police officers? Reports vary; shaded on the one end by the blanket denials of police spokesmen, and by the jaded outrage of overburdened social workers and advocates on the other end. If truth is found in moderation, and moderation is what is sought, one has first to go to those who have the most both to lose and to gain, the street prostitutes themselves. It is from them that the principle impressions of this article are gleaned.
What is clear in interview after interview is that the treatment of street prostitutes in San Francisco is better than in many other cities. Equally clear, is that even in this "better" place street prostitutes, always the most vulnerable of girls in "the life" are:
* frequently subjected to violent verbal abuse by police officers,
* victimized by and placed in increased physical danger through ineffective law
* often asked to trade sexual favors in exchange for not being arrested,
* commonly fondled in the course of being arrested,
* occasionally beaten and hurt in the process of being arrested,
* repeatedly discriminated against and harassed within the process of the criminal justice system,
* forced to understand that they have little or no recourse against a police department and criminal justice system that perceives prostitutes to be something less than fully human.
In the Autumn of 1992, Michelle Vuong, an Asian transsexual with an incongruous and striking mane of blond hair was walking home when she was picked up by a vice officer, who she remembers as a small, almost petite white man with brown hair. Michelle usually works out of a popular bar that is a hub of San Francisco's transgender nightlife, but on the night in question she decided to take a car date. At first it seemed like a fine idea. They chatted, he was a salesman, he thought she was beautiful, he said he wasn't a cop. He asked if he could feel between her legs and she let him. He let her feel his hard-on and then, at her invitation, he put his mouth on her left breast and licked her nipple.
Clearly it was time to complete the deal. Michelle suggested sixty dollars for a blowjob and he agreed, handing over the money and unzipping his pants. She had barely begun before he stopped her. "Give me back the money and I'll pay more for the full thing," he asked. Great, she thought, and handed the money back just in time for him express his sorrow for having to arrest her.
The shadow world where vice arrests like Michelle's take place is tailored to just such an ambiguous mixture of policework and abuse. Lieutenant Gary Pisciotto, a 23 year veteran of the SFPD who headed the Vice Squad before July, 1992, adamantly denies that such abuses take place. At the same time he points to revisions in the law that since the late 80's have permitted officers to engage in specific suggestions-like asking for a blowjob-in order to produce evidence of soliciting acts of prostitution. Combine this legalized entrapment procedure with what Pisciotto says is a policy ruling by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office that says, "if a girl puts an officer's hand on her breast it counts as an act of furtherance," and the rules of the game seem designed for the breaking.
Prostitutes, Public Defenders and a variety of prostitute-rights activists have long questioned the roles that vice officers are asked to play. Celia McGuinness of the Public Defender's Office comments that, "Vice must be a morally corrupting job, being asked to act first as the customer and then as the righteous law enforcer." Or, as Michelle puts it, "He gets to touch me and then arrest me, it's not fair." Asked about the conflicts inherent in a vice-officer's work, Lieutenant Pisciotto responds, "Well that's his job, to ferret out prostitution, and he's going to do that by using all the methods available to him."
There are two aspects of the Vice Squad that when taken together are especially troubling. First, vice assignments are voluntary, beginning inevitably with the desire of the officer to serve undercover. Second, as even potential adversaries of the Police Department like Alison Bernstein. a lawyer with the Public Defender's office, have noted, "The vice cops aren't given the support that they need." Bernstein is right in that no special training is provided beyond that which is required of every other police officer. This is a startling lack of preparation for work that involves a complex exchange or power and extreme psychological convolutions. Rotation out of the vice squad is left up to the vice-officer's discretion and desire. This optimistic 'hands-off vice" reproach of the SFPD is criticized by both prostitutes and other interested professionals, leaving as it does the nature of vice-work indistinct and open to considerable question.
Pisciotto meets questions about the nature of police-work with a good-humored conviction in the professional and moral strength of his officers. But when it comes to questions about police conduct, and charges of abuse, his anger rises quickly and he hews to a firm, often contemptuous line. "Accusations of police abuse are smokescreens thrown up by people who want to change the prostitution laws." Pisciotto was in charge of Management Control for five years, the police, unit which investigates charges of police misconduct, and he asks, "Why would I protect a bum" (who abused the authority of a police officer). He comments that during his tenure at the MC unit, not one prostitute complaint against a police officer came to his attention as a case requiring discipline. As far as the possibility of abuse happening, he says simply. "If a prostitute is abused by a police officer, then she should file a complaint."
This a comforting idea, but realistically, very few prostitutes would ever consider such an action. The prevailing sentiment is that to complain is to step inside the system and thereby, out of the rules of the "game," a decision that invites even greater risk of harassment and injury. Within the system the obstacles are perhaps best exemplified by the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), an independent agency that was created in 1983 as a means for civilian review of police conduct. Carol Draizen is a diversion representative at San Francisco's Pre-trial Diversion Project, a private non-profit which has a contract with the courts to provide community service assignments to first-time offenders. Draizen regularly works with prostitutes who complain of harassment and abuse at the hands of police officers. She says of OCC, "In terms of protecting the rights of the ordinary citizen against police abuse it doesn't appear to function, and the way the system is set up it certainly can't protect prostitutes. In the end it makes them even more vulnerable."
Draizen's opinion is rooted in the fact that prostitutes wishing to file complaints about vice-officer conduct are placed at an immediate and potentially threatening disadvantage by an OCC policy that denies equal access to evidence. The successful prosecution of Vice Squad prostitution arrests depends upon tape recordings of the exchange between cop and quarry. When complaints are filed these tapes become evidence used by OCC investigators. However, according to OCC senior Investigator, John Parker, who says he can't comment on the fairness issue, "To protect the police officer's confidentiality, California state law and the Police Officer's Bill of Rights allow only the police department and the officer in question to review the evidentiary tapes."
Once Under A Blue Moon
Despite the odds, some prostitutes do take the risks and file complaints of abuse against the police department.
Victoria Schneider is an ex-marine who served in Vietnam. Today she is a tall. willowy post-op transsexual with a penchant for velvet jumpsuits, and has been working as a prostitute in San Francisco for the past three years. At about 2 a.m. on a September 18, 1993, she was walking down Sutter Street when Vice officer Jordan Hom picked her up in white four-wheel-drive vehicle. In the report she later filed with OCC, Victoria says, "He stated he wanted a blowjob, and offered to pay fifty bucks for it." She says today that, "I thought he might be a cop, but I was curious, you know, so I went along with him." She remained noncommittal and Hom drove on, saying he lived nearby. Approaching what is called The Broadway Tunnel, Hom powerlocked the car doors and told Victoria she was under arrest
At this point the reports fieed by Victoria and Hom diverge for an elusive moment in time. Hom's arrest report reads:
"...I drove into the parking lot. At this time I ID'd myself as the police and place him under arrest. Suspect was taken to Central Station, and later booked by Officer M. Norrnan [at 850 Bryant]."
However, according to Victoria, after Id'ing himself as a cop, Jordan Hom never pulled over but instead continued driving and at the same time reached over and began to fondle first her breast and then her genitals. Then he took her to Central Station for booking.
The complaint that Victoria Schneider filed included the account of her arrest and also addressed issues of her treatment after arrest; issues that many prostitutes and in particular transgender prostitutes have confirmed as commonplace. Once booked she was transferred, as are all arrestees, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, an imposing grey-stone building that houses the city's Municipal and Superior courts, the District Attorney's Offices and the Police department's headquarters.
There, despite her repeated statements that she was legally a female with all the necessary documentation, and despite her requests for a medical examiner verification, she was placed in the cell with the male and transvestite prostitutes. Later, during processing she was forced to remove her wig and boots, neither of which were returned until her release from jail at 7:30 am. She was eventually examined by a medical doctor, who verified her gender status, but shortly after was again forced to strip by a guard while she was being held in the day room. "I consider this to have been pure harassment," she says.
Prostitutes complain frequently that in the course of a jail visit they are forced to undergo strip searches beyond what the law requires, and there are unconfirmed but widespread reports that transgender prostitutes in particular are subjected to cavity searches. The Sheriffs Department will say only that normal procedure is to conduct one strip search for drugs and potential weapons.
Victoria's report also makes note of verbal abuse to which she was subjected. According to the complaint she filed, during booking she was referred to frequently as "he-she-it," and made the target of jokes about sex changes. Interestingly, there is some evidence or this insensitivity provided by Officer Hom in the arrest report he filed throughout which he refers to Victoria as a he. While in regards to Hom's report a case can perhaps be made that there was room for mistake, it is at best reflective of the callous disregard with which many police officers treat transgender prostitutes.
Victoria Schneider registered her complaint with the OCC on October 1, 1993, and the case is still pending. Her citation for prostitution was dismissed a month after her arrest. I showed Lieutenant Pisciotto a copy of Victoria's complaint, which he dismissed as "nothing substantial," although adding that, "I would hope that he [Hom] didn't do this."
On Halloween night, 1993, Michelle Vuong was walking from her home to a nearby bar. "I wasn't working," she says, "I was just going out to see my friends." It was about 11:30 and while she was waiting for a traffic light to change a police car pulled alongside and one of the officers shouted at her, "No hooking."
Michelle said nothing in reply and began to cross the street. Apparently this was the wrong response. The police car cruised beside her, the same officer leaned from his window, "Faggot," he called, and then they arrested her. In the course of the arrest, Michelle was pushed against the wall and punched several times in the side and stomach leaving bruises on her ribs, her breasts were scratched hard enough to leave long welts that were visible two weeks after the incident, the contents of her purse were scattered onto the ground and her hands were cuffed behind her back.
Michelle was cited for jaywalking and taken to Northern Station for booking, after which she was released. Immediately upon arriving home her boyfriend Frank called Northern Station to register a furious complaint only to find that the arresting officer was untraceable. His signature was illegible, and according to Michelle and Frank, the badge number which must be entered on each arrest ticket was found to be one belonging to an officer long-retired from the Police Department and perhaps even dead.
Subsequently, Lieutenant Mary Stasko, the desk officer at Northern Station who handled the complaint, matched their description of the officer to a face and in accordance with SFPD regulations filed a complaint against that officer with the OCC. That complaint is still pending. Lieutenant Staska would not reveal the officer's name or correct badge number, and provided only cursory answers to questions about the incident, saying only, "The allegations that were made did not seem accidental." Stasko did though, offer a different interpretation of the false badge number, saying, "When she, [Michelle] was here she was very upset and she simply reversed two digits of the number. There was no false badge number given." Because the ticket issued Michelle has since been lost neither side of the story could be more fully confirmed.
The Tuesday after Halloween Michelle and Frank filed their own complaint with the OCC. Already though their complaint has fallen victim to the fear that street prostitutes live with and to the ability of police officers to act anonymously if they so choose. For all effective purposes, the officers who assaulted Michelle do not exist; ghosts with their backs to the law from the minute they reported a false badge number. In order for Michelle to locate her attackers she would have to search them out and identify them, an action so opposed to the common sense dictum that rules her life as a transgender prostitute-stay away from the cops--that she has decided to drop her complaint. As she says, "It is too much trouble with him knowing where to find me and me not knowing who is he."
A Shut Case?
In October, 1992, a street walker named Patricia Randall was involved in an argument with a would be pimp on the corner of Ellis and Jones Streets in the Tenderloin. It was a loud argument that evolved to where the man hit Patricia with a lead pipe on the side of her head. Neighbors apparently called the police and two Vice officers responded just in time to arrest Patricia for prostitution.
The two officers, both white, drove her directly to The Hall of Justice, where the Vice Squad's office is, and brought her upstairs for booking. Patricia, who acknowledges that she had been drinking, reports that during the elevator ride to the fifth floor one of the officers slapped her as many as nine times. "I kept talking back to him cause he kept slapping me," she says. On the fifth floor Patricia began to resist more actively and the same officer began to kick her in the stomach as she lay on the floor. "Five times he kicked me and I kept saying that I was pregnant but he kept kicking," she remembers.
According to Patricia, Jordan Hom was present when the two officers brought her through the office doors. "I gave him his first ho case," she says, "and I remember him saying something like, 'Hey, you guys are messing up the wrong girl.'" Perhaps Hom's interceding made a difference. In any event, she reports that she was told, 'If you don't say anything about this we'll let you go." To which, in the manner of one to whom being arrested is no particular trauma, but being beaten is, she replied, "Fuck you."
Patricia says that upon being released the next day she went to the OCC office to report the incident, and that after accepting her complaint form, the OCC investigator on hand took photographs of the bruises on her abdomen and face. She has yet to hear from OCC regarding her complaint. She adds that she has seen the officers on the street since that night and that they ignore her. In contrast to many of the other prostitutes who were interviewed for this article, Patricia Randall asked that her real name be used in the hopes that attention would be focused on OCC, the police, and her case.
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